McCain's Remarks on 9/11 Bill Draw Democrats' Fury

The Wall Street Journal - December 18, 2010

by Devlin Barrett

Tempers flared on the Senate floor Friday after Arizona Sen. John McCain said Democrats were wasting time "fooling around" with bills like one that would provide health care to ailing Ground Zero workers.

McCain's comments sparked an immediate and angry response from New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who said the legislation is deadly serious to the workers who have died or fallen ill to cancer or other diseases from exposure to toxic debris.

McCain complained that Democratic leaders needlessly stalled a vote on a missile treaty with Russia "after all of the fooling around we've been doing" by holding losing votes on immigration and the Ground Zero health-care legislation.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg also took McCain to task, calling his comments "shocking." He noted that first responders came from across the country to work at the World Trade Center site, including about 100 people from McCain's home state of Arizona.

Within minutes of McCain's comment, Schumer had hurried to the floor to hit back.

"To call helping (first responders) fooling around is saddening and frustrating," Schumer said. "We are not fooling around. We are fulfilling our duty as patriotic Americans."

McCain replied that he was only griping about the Democrats' handling of the legislative schedule, not the merits of the legislation he opposes. "For the senator from New York to somehow interpret that as (criticism) of the bill itself of course is an incredible stretch of the imagination, and frankly I resent it," McCain said.

The Ground Zero health-care legislation has become a sore point in the last days of the lame duck session of Congress. The bill, which would provide $7.4 billion in health care and compensation for ill recovery workers and others exposed to toxic dust of the site, has been stalled in congress for years. This session is viewed as its last best chance for passage.

The bill failed to overcome united Republican opposition in a straight party-line vote in the Senate last week. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have spent weeks trying to find one more Republican vote to give them enough support to pass the measure in the Senate. The House also already approved the legislation, and Obama has promised to sign it into law.

Democrats have said they hope to call another vote on the bill before the lame duck session ends, but it is unclear if they will have time to do so.